Early Migrants and Settlers: Miners, Packers and Vaqueros
Railroad and Migrant Workers
Cultural Traditions and Community Formation


Mexicans have lived in the Pacific Northwest since the 1850s. They continued to come to the region for mining and ranching opportunities through the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, political and economic conditions in Mexico that resulted from revolution and the repressive policies of President Porfirio Diaz pushed many out of Mexico to go north. Agricultural and railroad expansion and labor shortages in the United States also pulled thousands of Mexicans from their homeland to the Southwest and to other regions of the United States.

Mexican American communities in the Columbia River Basin began to grow dramatically beginning in the early 1940s. World War II agricultural labor shortages drew more Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants to the region. By the1960s small enclaves of families who decided to “settle out” of the migrant stream dotted rural communities in southwestern Idaho, the Treasure Valley in Oregon and Idaho, Willamette Valley in Oregon, and the Yakima Valley in Washington. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, a new migration wave from Mexico brought thousands more to the region who joined their predecessors and helped create vibrant communities. Today Mexican Americans populate urban areas as well, as significant numbers have chosen to settle in Portland, Spokane, and Boise, and are counted among the 623,000 people of Mexican origin enumerated by the Census of 2000 in the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

Early Migrants and Settlers: Miners, Packers and Vaqueros

Some of the earliest Mexican migrants in the Columbia River Basin were mule packers, miners, and vaqueros (cowboys). Mexican mule packers were the descendants of generations of Spanish-Mexicans who learned their trade in Mexico, the Southwest, and California and moved supplies of all types from distribution points in northern California to areas as far north as the Illinois Valley in Oregon. In the mid-1850s, Mexican packers also supplied the Second Regiment Oregon Mounted Volunteers during the Rogue River War in Oregon, and in the 1870s brought supplies to the mining camps in Idaho. Mexican miners worked the placers in the hills near Idaho City, and in the late 1870s Manuel Fontez discovered rich quartz veins in the Salmon River Mountains between the middle and south forks.

Like their mule-packer cultural siblings, Mexican vaqueros learned their trade centuries before in the ranchos of Spanish and Mexican California and Texas. They developed their skills in horsemanship and in the various tasks required to tend cattle herds. They brought their talents to Idaho and Oregon in the early 1870s and trained young Anglos aspiring to become cowboys. In 1872 rancher John Devine hired Mexican vaqueros to trail his herd to Oregon from California. Several of these men who worked with Devine until the turn of the century became some of the earliest Mexican American settlers in the Pacific Northwest. Vaqueros from Texas and from California also distinguished themselves in Idaho as they did in Oregon. Felipe Carruso and his California vaqueros managed thousands of cattle for Dan Murphy in Owyhee County. Joseph Amera acquired land and stock of his own and raised thousands of cattle near White Bird, and Guadalupe Valdez worked cattle in south central Idaho.

Railroad and Migrant Workers

The story of Mexican Americans in the Pacific Northwest in the twentieth century is closely related to the development of the railroads and irrigated agriculture. Revolution and the resulting chaotic economic conditions in Mexico caused hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to enter the United States in the years from 1917 to the outbreak of the Great Depression in1929. The expansion of sugar beet production in Idaho “pulled” Mexican migrants to the Columbia River Basin. As demand for labor increased, recruiters for the railroad companies and agriculture fanned out to the southwestern states and border cities in northern Mexico and enlisted many Mexicans eager to find work and a better life in the United States.

Some migrants hired out with the railroad companies in the Southwest and Midwest working in “el traque” (railroad section gangs) and ended up in Idaho. Rita Perez’s parents came to Idaho Falls in 1925. In an oral history interview Perez recalls that her father worked for the railroad and “traveled a lot” before deciding to settle in Idaho Falls. Other Mexicans came to Oregon to work with the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Oregon Short Line in the years before World War I.

Thousands of migrant workers from Mexico and the Southwest also came to the Columbia River Basin in response to aggressive recruitment of sugar companies and farmers. Others made it to Idaho, Oregon, and Washington on their own as word of work opportunities traveled through kinship networks. Juanita Huerta’s parents migrated from the Mexican state of Zacatecas to Shelby, Idaho in 1918, where she was born the same year. Thomas Murillo’s parents crossed the border at El Paso and boarded a train of the Utah and Idaho Sugar Company to Blackfoot, Idaho, to work in the beet fields. Sally De La Garza’s parents first migrated to Montana in the early 1900s, where her father worked for a sugar company and as a laborer for the railroad. Her family moved to Idaho in 1932 and settled near Idaho Falls to work on farms. The Great Depression dramatically slowed Mexican migration to the region but did not stop it completely.

Agricultural production expanded with the advent of World War II, and the demand for labor increased again. Recruiters sought Mexicans and Mexican Americans in northern Mexico and the Southwest, who responded by the thousands and came to toil in the fields and orchards of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. This time the federal government also joined the effort by entering into an agreement with Mexico to import Mexican contract workers, who became known as braceros, to harvest the crops in the Pacific Northwest and other regions of the country. Mexican Americans continued to migrate to the region. For example, Antonio Rodriguez came with his family to Aberdeen, Idaho in 1941 from their home in Karnes City, Texas. They settled in Nampa in 1954.
Not all Mexicans or Mexican Americans migrated directly to the Columbia River Basin. Victoria Sierra’s family, who settled in Pocatello, Idaho in 1942, first moved to Grand Junction from their home in La Junta, Colorado. The family then moved to Nyssa, Oregon before settling in Pocatello. Abel Vasquez’s family first moved to Salt Lake City before migrating to Preston, Idaho.

In the post-World War II years, agricultural work opportunities continued to attract Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. In Oregon Mexicans and Mexican Americans from California and Texas worked the crops in the Rogue River, the Willamette, Hood River, and the Treasure Valleys. In central Washington Mexicans and Mexican Americans concentrated in the Yakima Valley but also worked in the Wenatchee Valley and the Pasco and Walla Walla areas. In western Washington they worked as far north as the Mt. Vernon area in the Skagit Valley. Mexicans and Mexican Americans worked in the south central and southwestern parts of Idaho, including the Treasure Valley. Depending on the location these itinerant workers thinned sugar beets, topped onions, harvested hops and green beans, and picked potatoes, apples, asparagus and cherries. As early as the mid-1940s many Mexican American migrant workers began "settling out" of the migrant stream to seek year-round employment and to establish permanent roots in the areas where they worked. As new food processing plants provided jobs and as more of their children received an education, Mexican Americans were able to establish communities.

Cultural Traditions and Community Formation

Today the Latino communities in the Columbia River Basin are a legacy of agricultural expansion and of the cultural and religious traditions of Mexican Americans. The Mexican settlers of the 1920s and 1930s were few in number and lived in considerable isolation from their ethnic counterparts in the Southwest. However, as their numbers increased in the 1940s and 1950s their cultural and religious celebrations fostered ethnic solidarity.

Mexican Americans in Idaho staged Mexican fiestas in the labor camps of Wilder, Nampa, and Caldwell in the 1940s and the 1950s. In 1957 in Quincy, Washington, Mexican Americans began celebrating the Mexican fiesta. In Woodburn, Oregon, Mexican Americans organized the first Fiesta Mexicana in August 1964, with support from the local businesses. Fiesta Mexicana has been held annually since then and is the longest running Mexican American celebration in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

With the advent of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, Mexican Americans in the Columbia River Basin placed new value on the need to “go back” to their cultural roots as people of Mexican origin. “Escuelitas” (little schools), community cultural centers, artists, and dance and theater groups sprouted to give direction to the cultural renaissance. “La Escuelita” was founded in Granger, Washington in 1969, and the same year in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Centro Chicano Cultural was organized near Woodburn. In 1972 in Caldwell, Idaho, Mexican American families organized FAMA (Familias Mexico Americanas) to promote the preservation of Mexican American culture. These groups stressed the need to preserve the Spanish language, to study Mexican history, and to present Mexican and Mexican American cultural traditions. In turn, theater groups such as El Teatro del Piojo (theater of lice) sought to promote awareness of social issues affecting Mexican Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

Religion-based celebrations and customs also fostered ethnic solidarity and the continuity of Mexican culture among Mexican American communities in the Pacific Northwest. Compadrazgo (co-parenthood), which centered on baptism of Mexican and Mexican American children, bonded families together. For Mexican American girls an important event was the Quinceañera, an event that signifies the passage of a girl to womanhood and is celebrated when Mexican American girls reach their fifteenth birthday. Other common religion-based celebrations are Las Posadas and the anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Indian Juan Diego. Las Posadas represent the re-creation of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. Like the Mexican fiestas, these religion-based celebrations have fostered cultural continuity and reinforced Mexican American identity in the Columbia River Basin.

Volunteer, cultural, and political associations also played a very important role in the formation of Mexican American communities in the Columbia River Basin. In 1955, Nampa World War II veteran Tony Rodriguez founded a local chapter of the American G. I. Forum, an advocacy organization for Mexican American veterans. In Nyssa, Oregon, Christina De La Cruz Vendrell helped establish Siempre Adelante (Always Forward), an organization that emerged in 1954 as a Mexican American community effort to seek justice in the hit- and- run death of a young Mexican American killed by a drunk Anglo driver. In 1967 the Mexican American Federation was organized in Yakima, Washington, to advocate for community development and political empowerment for Mexican Americans in the Yakima Valley. La Sociedad Mutualista, founded in Granger, Washington in 1968, focused on self-help for its members and sponsorship of social and cultural events. In 1968 Woodburn residents created the Latin American Club to promote preservation of Mexican American culture and awareness of social issues.

Since the 1970s, the most visible organizations for Mexican Americans in the region have been advocates for farm workers. The United Farm Workers Union, based in Sunnyside, Washington in the Yakima Valley, has tried to organize and represent farm workers. PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), based in Woodburn, is the labor union advocate for Latino farm workers in Oregon. In Idaho, a labor union for Latino farm workers has not emerged. However, the Idaho Migrant Council, a non-profit organization, has advocated for Mexican American farm workers since the early 1970s.
Until the 1960s, most Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Columbia River Basin were migrant farm workers. The transition to permanent residency and the civil rights movement changed this status for many, and more Mexican Americans have received a college education and have joined the ranks of professionals as educators, bankers, insurance and real estate agents, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and engineers. The vitality of Mexican American communities can also be seen in the explosion of numerous businesses such as taquerias (fast food eateries), restaurants, bakeries and tortillerías (tortilla factories), and tienditas (small grocery stores that stock Mexican and other Latino ethnic foods) that dot the region’s landscape. Mexican American entrepreneurial achievement is also represented in the abundance of businesses in lawn care and landscape services and auto repair shops throughout the region. Perhaps a more powerful indicator of the social and economic impact of the Mexican American presence in the Pacific Northwest is the proliferation of numerous Spanish-language newspapers, radio stations, and television programs that cater to Spanish-speaking audiences throughout the region.

Today, Mexican American communities in the Columbia River Basin are still in process of formation as new immigrants continue to come to the region. Since 1970 record numbers of Mexicans have entered the United States, and many of these have entered without legal documentation. They have joined Mexican Americans in established communities such as Sunnyside in Washington’s Yakima Valley, Woodburn in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and Caldwell in western Idaho, and constitute the majority in some small rural communities such as Wapato, Washington. They are also settling in urban and remote, isolated areas previously unpopulated by Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Prior to 1970, a small population, low levels of education, and discrimination kept Mexican Americans from any meaningful political participation in the communities where they resided. Mexican Americans and Mexicans will continue to shape politics and culture in the Columbia River Basin as more of them become U.S. citizens and more second-generation descendants obtain an education, vote, develop businesses, and contribute to the cultural life of the region.

- Mario Compean



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